Heady spoils to a hard-nosed victor

Malcolm Gray April 5 1982

Heady spoils to a hard-nosed victor

Malcolm Gray April 5 1982

Heady spoils to a hard-nosed victor


Malcolm Gray

Their B-movie image endures, and with good reason.

Two former Teamster presidents, Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa, did time in prison, and Hoffa, who hasn’t been seen since 1975, is thought to have been murdered. The current president, Roy Williams, recently charged with attempting to bribe a U.S. senator, joins a score of Teamster officials indicted or convicted last year. The largest and most influential union in the United States, the Teamsters cannot escape the lingering suspicions of mob connections.

But in Canada, membership has reached 100,000 without a hint of

scandal. In a union built -

on top-down control, the reason is the enigmatic leader of the Teamsters’ Canadian wing. He is 52 and rich, a man of positions, including a seat in the Canadian Senate and a director’s chair in the boardroom of the company that owns the Vancouver Canucks. That description, worthy of a prince of capitalism, belongs to Ed Lawson, who became a spokesman for the free-enterprise system by climbing through the ranks of organized labor. Between his Senate salary and the $101,000 he gets from the Teamsters, Lawson earns at least $155,000 a year. Now he is poised for a great leap forward to one of the highest jobs with the international executive of the over-two-million-

member union. Many consider him a good bet for the position of secretary-treasurer, which pays close to $200,000 a year.

With his clean image, brains and speaking ability, Lawson has impressed the American Teamsters as a liberal ever since the early ’70s, when he risked his own future with the union by supporting an executive who did not think the Teamsters should support Richard Nixon. Canadians, however, remember Lawson as the only union leader to support wage and price controls in 1975. “It’s a pity,” says

Ray Haynes, former secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour. “Lawson has everything: the smarts and the organizing ability. He could have been the greatest labor leader this province—hell, this country—ever


Lawson doesn’t back away from a fight but places more value in a good contract than in the pro forma socialist rhetoric of many labor leaders. That approach befits the Teamsters, for they too remain loners within the house of labor.

The Teamsters take pride in being a businessman’s union that honors its contracts, even though they occasion-

ally fail to meet expectations. Although the union seldom goes on strike, its support is crucial in many labor disputes that depend on stopping goods from being shipped through picket lines. The Teamsters usually respect the picket lines but still attract criticism. “They’re isolated and not interested in anything except their own welfare,” opines Syd Thompson, former head of the Vancouver Labour Council. “They’re certainly not interested in building a strong trade union movement.” As for Ed Lawson, Thompson believes that his Senate seat and his big salary bare the marks of an exec¿ utive, not of a worker, o Thompson will say no more publicly about - Lawson or the Teamsenator once sued him for of the five times that

sters. The slander—one Lawson has made people pay for their remarks about him. He has also refused to discuss either his career or the Teamsters with Maclean's since 1972, when columnist Allan Fotheringham revealed that Lawson changed his name from Adolph Lachowski at age 22. “He’s a tough, mean mother of an adversary,” says Peter Wilson, director of the Teamster’s Western Canada region and a Lawson supporter.

That’s exactly the kind of leader the Teamsters like, especially now, when deregulation of the U.S. trucking industry has cost union truckers their _ jobs as transport firms drop unprofitable routes. At the same time, other workers who have never seen the inside of a rig are lining up to join the Teamsters. The people who work for the B.C. district of Abbotsford now contribute to international headquarters along with airline pilots, factory workers, policemen and firemen. What attracts them all is the union’s reputation for winning good contracts. Last month in the U.S., for example, members saw their jobs b protected under a national freight agreement. And in Cani ada, Teamsters continue to earn $20 an hour driving trucks.

Good contracts have their price, however. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is a rigidly structured union which rewards its executives with lavish salaries and generous pension benefits. Power is concentrated at the top. In fact, the union constitution allows the head office to take over a union local with little notice. Advancement within the hierarchy comes from playing by the rules, as Lawson did.

These days he dominates Teamsters Canada after a guerrilla-like attack on his leadership which began within the

very local where he started his rise to power. The adversary was the small but influential Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform movement that for the past six years has been struggling to give ordinary members more say in running the Teamsters.

A hot-tempered trucker named Jack Vlahovic launched the TDU’s attack in 1977. Vlahovic was a business agent then, appointed with the approval of Lawson himself. But instead of being grateful, he successfully ran for secretary-treasurer of Local 213 (against the establishment’s candidate), criticizing

Lawson for dividing his attentions among his Senate and four union jobs. Vlahovic didn’t enjoy the office for long. At Lawson’s instigation, he was tried by a union panel which found him guilty of failing to carry out the international’s wishes. He was thrown out, banned for life from holding any official position with the Teamsters, and fined $26,000. “There is no question that the union functions within a monolithic structure in a paramilitary way,” said Judge John Groves Gould of the B.C. Supreme Court when Vlahovic tried vainly to win reinstatement.

Five years later, the establishment forces dealt the still fractious ginger group another blow. TDU members were among 2,200 Teamsters at the 1981 convention in Las Vegas. The reformers, including four from Vancouver, found other delegates in no mood to hear suggestions for change. That made for sweaty palms among the TDU members, who recalled that one of them had been beaten up five years before just for speaking up at the convention.

Diana Kilmury of Prince George, the first woman in B.C. to operate heavy construction equipment, was jumpy enough to refuse a package of flowers delivered to her hotel room, fearing it might conceal a bomb. But on the floor of the convention centre she fought to make herself heard above the catcalls. “When I sit here in Canada and pick up a newspaper indicting yet another Teamster, what am I supposed to believe? ... But if you’re too damn scared to have an ethical practices committee, then, my God, you must be up to something.” That had little effect on a convention where the top officials were voted huge pay increases, while strike pay was raised by only $10 a week.

The reformers were crushed at the convention, salving Lawson’s discomfort at the inroads they had made on his territory. (“I’m embarrassed by the fact that it sounds like the whole of Canada is opposed to what the international wants to do,” he said.) That defeat foreshadowed another TDU loss later in the year, when an executive endorsed by Lawson was elected.

Today, Jack Vlahovic is just another unemployed truck driver, burning for revenge and suing both his union and the company that fired him. Diana Kilmury is still working, but is taking a rest from union politics for a while.

“If you expel someone and he does well, then expulsion isn’t a penalty,” Ed Lawson said recently, referring to a 22-year-old struggle—the expulsion of the Teamsters from the Canadian Labour Congress for raiding other unions. Since then the Teamsters have thrived. Ed Lawson makes sure his enemies can’t say the same thing.

Rod Mickleburgh

With files from Rod Mickleburgh.